Starving them out
Over the past 25 years, people have been supported while seeking asylum through a basic living allowance and limited casework. These support programs were designed so that people can more effectively resolve their claims for protection.
In the past few years, and especially since August 2017, the Australian Government has been making it harder for people to access these support programs. This is forcing vulnerable men, women and children into destitution.
Changes implemented prior to August 2017
In 2014, when the SRSS program replaced previous programs, there was a significant increase in the number of clients a caseworker had to support. The program also shifted towards ensuring compliance, rather than offering holistic casework support.
Many clients, especially those on Band 6, lost their dedicated caseworker and mainly spoke to the SRSS service providers through occasional phone calls. To get help, they often needed to call the agency’s hotline or attend the agency’s drop-in centre. This made it much more difficult for caseworkers (usually qualified and experienced social workers) to work effectively with clients and to identify concerns relating to mental health, family issues or worker exploitation.
There has also been a drastic decrease in the number of clients on Bands 3 and 5, which both allow for more intensive casework.
Some service providers have told us of their many unsuccessful attempts to keep their clients on some form of support (usually Band 5), especially those vulnerable clients who could not get any support after an unfavourable decision at the review stage. Sometimes service providers could only succeed in getting their clients on ‘Band 5 medical’, a type of Band 5 support that only covers the cost of healthcare without providing any income support.
Something that we are getting a lot of referrals from SRSS providers is for people who are on band 5 medical which is rather very useless because these are people who don’t have any other support and any kind of financial assistance. They have access to reduced rate of medicines, they can get six-dollar PBS medicine but don’t actually have money to even pay the $6. These are people with complex health needs who have been recognised by the Department as someone who needs assistance. If they are on that support it means their issues are often threatening. It seems to be a compliance issue, there seem to be people who are often at the later stages of their visa determination and it’s kind of seen as a way of pushing people.
—Deirdre, staff member of a community organisation, Sydney
The issue is not just the cost of medication, it’s about people with brain tumors who are sleeping in parks. They are trying to get to hospital specialists and are on Band 5 medicals. So they have access to discounted medicine but nowhere to live and no way to actually get to the hospital for the care they need.
—James, SRSS provider
Recent changes to SRSS program
I think it’s a really huge thing that we’re going through at the moment, that we are having people come in who are on partner visas, student visas [and are not eligible for SRSS support]. I had a woman come in yesterday and her husband had a student visa that she had come to Australia on as well. The visa doesn’t expire until August next year, so she isn’t eligible to come on the program and they have children, so we’re seeing child protection issues and domestic violence issues, there’s a plethora of problems that are going to come from this policy change, but the problem is people didn’t know. There’s been no warning to people prior to coming here, also there’s been no warning about sending money as well.
—Samantha, SRSS service provider
Since August 2017, there have been further changes to the SRSS program which have dramatically reduced the number of people eligible for support. This is set to continue and affect a greater number of people.
These changes are:
- People who are studying full-time are no longer eligible and have been exited from the program on this ground
- People who have transferred more than $1000 to a domestic or overseas bank account (that is not in their names) over a 12-month period are no longer eligible. This can have great implications for those who transfer money to pay their rent, shared utility bills, and other expenses and is unclear how it will be monitored, and
- People on other types of visas (for example students or visitor visas) are no longer eligible while their other (‘substantive’) visa is valid (this can often be years).
These changes were made by the Department through additions to the SRSS Operational Procedures Manual, without consultation. We were alerted to the issue by our organisational members who saw more people seeking support from unfunded agencies as they were refused or lost their access to the SRSS program.
There were many reports of people losing SRSS support because they had transferred small amounts of money overseas, for example $50, many years ago. Some were told they would need to pay back thousands of dollars in SRSS support from the date they made the bank transfer, creating significant stress for many.
Eventually, the policy was clarified so that debts could only be incurred for payments made after 3 November 2017, the date the SRSS providers were first notified of this policy. It was also clarified that people would only lose support if there had been transfers amounting to $1000 or more over a twelve-month period.
While we understand debts incurred for payments before 3 November 2017 were reversed, it is unclear if people who had been removed from the program have been able to regain access to support. This is especially of concern as service providers report that it is almost impossible for people to regain access to the program (for example, after they have lost their jobs) or to be provided a higher level of support if they become more vulnerable.
There also continues to be cases where people have been refused access to SRSS after losing their jobs because they transferred money overseas. However, that transfer was made from their own income while they were employed. With current Government policies denying family reunion to almost all people arriving in Australia by boat, supporting families living in precarious and dangerous situations overseas is the only practical assistance people can offer to their loved ones.
Plans to cut support to more people
The Department plans to cut income and casework support to more people seeking asylum in the next few months in 2018. The Department has indicated that the program is likely to reduce drastically, probably to fewer than 5000 people. As at 28 February 2018, 13,299 people were on SRSS support. Reducing that number to only 5000 means a 60% cut in the number of people receiving support. The Government has indicated that people who have work rights and do not meet an extremely high threshold of vulnerability are expected to get work and will lose SRSS support, whether they have a job or not.
People will be expected to get work without further support. Currently, people on bridging visas can only get support under Stream A of the Jobactive program, which mainly includes providing access to a computer and the Internet. There is also no extra English language support to help people become job ready.
The Department has also indicated that even those who do get support now from the SRSS program will be getting much more limited levels of support. Rather, they will get only the services that they need to remove the barrier or barriers which prevent them from resolving their immigration status.
This will be determined by the Department, paving the way for an increase in the number of people who get support in a way similar to those on ‘Band 5 medical’. For example, the Department may decide that a person with complex health issues who is homeless but has work rights can only get subsidised medication and not income support.
- In the next few months, SRSS providers and the Department will assess the vulnerability of all current SRSS recipients and their barriers to working.
The four elements to the vulnerability assessment are:
- Physical health barriers that are ongoing; permanent disability; or cognitive impairment
- Mental health barriers, with a current diagnosis and treatment plan in place
- Single parents with pre-school aged children (children under six); pregnant women with complications; a primary carer for someone with a significant vulnerability; people aged 70 and over
- A major crisis for the client (family violence, house fire, flood, etc.)
The Department will also use its own information to conduct assessments (the Community Protection Assessment Tool (CPAT) which is not publicly available) and may seek a second opinion. For example, it has indicated it may refer health matters to the Chief Medical Officer.
Who is affected
These changes can affect anyone who has an unresolved immigration status and is unable to support themselves. They can affect those who have come to Australia by plane and then sought asylum, as people can no longer get support if they have a valid visa which is not a bridging visa.
These changes can also affect people who may not be seeking asylum but are vulnerable migrants, such as women who came to Australia on a partner visa but find themselves in a situation of domestic violence. Before, they could get support on Band 5 but now they will be left without any financial or healthcare support if their partner visa is still in effect.
These changes also affect bright young students who are seeking asylum and have won scholarships to university, as those studying full-time can no longer receive support.
These people will add to an already large number of people who have no means of support and are relying on charity to survive because of various government policies. They include people seeking asylum who are waiting for a court decision (who have been ineligible for SRSS support for years) or people transferred to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island for health and protection reasons who have been given bridging visas without access to SRSS support.
Those who are working may not be directly affected now, but they will have no safety net and nowhere to go for support if they lose their jobs or their work rights, or need help to cover the cost of their healthcare or require support to navigate various systems. This will also increase significantly the risks of these people being exploited at work.